An American Weimar: Devastation and defeat in Christopher Brown’s Rule of Capture

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Christopher Brown’s latest novel, Rule of Capture (Harper Voyager), is set in a humbled America that has just lost a war against China. Its landscape is decimated by climate change and the country’s social fabric has been savaged by infighting. Every branch of government has been compromised as the United States searches for its identity. Rule of Capture is a provocative thought experiment that explores a scenario seldom considered by Americans. What if the United States decisively lost its next big conflict?

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Rule of Capture builds on the turbulent world you first constructed in Tropic of Kansas. Can you describe that world briefly?

CHRISTOPHER BROWN: These are post-colonial novels where the USA is the “third-world country.” The characters travel through a mirror of the America we live in, ecologically and economically exhausted, stressed by mass migrations in the face of climate change and fights over diminishing resources, and on the verge of open uprisings by restive people under attack by their own increasingly authoritarian government. It’s a world where 9/11 never happened, but all that angry power of the vengeful security state is unleashed internally, and the terrorists are us. The landscape feels almost post-apocalyptic, but it’s mostly just describing things I see around me in the real landscape, usually off the beaten path. The aim is a kind of speculative naturalism that shows truths conventional realism cannot. The “Tropic of Kansas” featured in these books is not a real place, but you can see it from here.

SCINQ: The book is set in an America that has just lost a war to China. The easy plot device choice would have been to go down the Occupied America route. Instead, you chose a more subtle setting. In Rule of Capture, America is a humbled and insecure country struggling with its identity and aspiring to be great again. While Chinese influence is significant, it is indirect. How did you come up with this idea?

CB: I wanted to make an American Weimar—a situation in which the US has been humiliated by military defeat and subjected to economic strangulation through externally imposed austerity measures and arms strictures akin to what was imposed on Germany at the end of WWI. And then use this inverted reality as a laboratory to explore how we would behave in such circumstances—a narrative stress test that also (I hope) tells an entertaining story, and uses the dystopian lens to try to find plausible paths to better futures on the other side.

SCINQ: The devastation in America extends past the environment and seeps into the country’s legal system. Can you discuss this?

CB: There’s a moral rot at the heart of the matter, as ethical norms are quickly shed by powerful elites when their privilege is threatened, and the legal system kicks into emergency mode—meaning power makes the rules it deems appropriate to contain the situation. People flee the Midwest amid ecological collapse, while coastal storms drive mass evacuations further inland, and even a big state like Texas starts to seem very crowded, with internal migrants living in refugee camps made from failed suburbs—camps that breed their own rowdy insurgencies. Martial law, interstate border controls and military-style counterinsurgency tribunals are the result. All based on real law extensively researched, from the treatises written by soldiers who helped governors suppress labor movements with armed troops before WW2 to the transcripts of the Guantánamo tribunals going on right now, which were the main inspiration for the court in which much of the action in Rule of Capture takes place.

I wanted to make an American Weimar—a situation in which the US has been humiliated by military defeat and subjected to economic strangulation…

SCINQ: How does Donny Kimoe, the protagonist in the book, fit into this new system? What does he represent?

CB: Donny Kimoe is a burned-out trial lawyer who gets the impossible job of defending accused domestic terrorists in a special emergency court whose rules from top to bottom are designed to ensure he loses and his clients get locked up. He starts out as the dystopian version of the kind of lawyer who gets his clients from ads on billboards and bus stops, a guy who couldn’t cut it at a big law firm or as a prosecutor, and pays the bills taking court appointments to shepherd people through that dark system. He ends up as a real-deal people’s lawyer—a lawyer who no longer serves the corrupt system, but fights it. We used to have a lot of stories about lawyers who became that kind of champion of the underdog, and I think we need more of them—in fiction and in real life.

SCINQ: Do you see an arid future for the United States?

CB: Aridity is just one measure of the environmental blight I depict in these books, which to me feels like an honest depiction of a future that’s already here, if you look in the right places. What I’m trying to dig into through the eyes of my characters is something a little different than the way we usually talk about the environment. It’s not so much reporting the scientific facts of climate change as expressing how the world really feels when you realize how exploitative our relationship is with everything else in the world. It’s essentially the same world Godfrey Reggio depicts in his incredible documentary film Koyaanisqatsi, which I had the good fortune to see again on the big screen while I was working on this book. “Life out of balance,” driven by a relentless, millennia-long effort to subjugate nature to serving our needs without any real consideration of its needs. I think the short-term future will deliver what always results from relationships that are lacking in reciprocity: systemic crisis and maybe failure.

I think the longer-term future, though, is much brighter. I believe in the resilience of nature, in the ability of natural systems to check human hubris, and in the increasing desire of people to figure out a way to have the benefits of modern life in a way that is in authentic balance with nature—including by making space for wild nature within the fabric of the city. Ten years ago we built our own new home in the trench that was left after digging up an old petroleum pipeline, and in its place we put a green-roof shelter on which we have restored the prairie ecology that dominated this area before European settlement but is now nearly extinct. We know many people and institutions undertaking similar efforts here and elsewhere. And once you experience what life can be like living in the city but amid real biodiversity, the kind that flutters in your face from sun-up to moonrise, you never go back. At their thematic heart, these books are an effort by me to map the way to that greener future, by bushwhacking through the most dystopian aspects of how we live now.

SCINQ: In not so many words, you make the case that climate change is a major driver of inequality and, by extension a source of conflict. If current environmentally damaging practices are allowed to proceed unchecked, do you see that as a likely by-product?

CB: In Tropic of Kansas, I initially set out to imagine a purely political revolution—an American mirror of the Arab Spring, an #Occupy with AK-47s. But pretty quickly, through the eyes of my characters, I realized that all of the social and economic injustices they sought to rectify resulted from the damaged relationship their society had with its environment. The genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, border struggles, economic inequality, and all the far-reaching consequences of all those things, are ultimately rooted in the way we occupy and exploit the land that sustains us. Our property systems, our labor systems, our categorizations of people, the structures of our governments, all are designed to serve that system of Anthropocene production. The conflict and inequality are already there, taken for granted by each of us as a part of everyday life. It doesn’t take much fictional speculation—or historical research—to imagine where things are headed as the consequences of that approach become more severe, in a world of increasing population, finite resources, relentless competition, and climate crisis. Rule of Capture explores that scenario through the experience of one young woman who merely wants to build a better future, only to be branded a terrorist, and the lawyer who helps her, and has his own awakening in the process.

SCINQ: What would you like readers to take away from Rule of Capture?

CB: I hope readers will be so entertained, with narrative tension, speculative wonder, occasional terror, and wry laughter, that they won’t be able to put the book down. And when they finish, I hope they will see the world around them in a different light. See its injustices and opportunities through a fresh prism. And see ways they can begin to address those problems in their own lives.

SCINQ: What is next for you?

CB: The book I am working on now is a utopian novel—an effort to envision the sort of ecologically enlightened future the young dissidents are fighting for in Rule of Capture. Utopia is a lot harder to imagine—at least plausibly—than dystopia. Because really, to address the sorts of root problems I’m talking about, you have to go back to the beginning of the agricultural revolution. But history is rich with experiments in proving better models of human community, and I think the future will be rich with them too. The story of that community is told through lawyer Donny Kimoe, the protagonist of Rule of Capture, who now finds himself tasked with representing people hauled in front of post-revolutionary tribunals in the liberated New Orleans of Tropic of Kansas—an experiment in ecotopia that is beta-testing a new justice system that protects the rights of the environment as well as human beings. And if you want to screw up utopia (and introduce narrative conflict), just put a lawyer in it.

For more information about Christopher Brown, visit his webpage. To order a copy of Rule of Capture, visit HarperCollins.com.

IMAGE SOURCE: Harper Voyager (cover); Crawford Morgan (profile)

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